Chuck Klosterman is flabbergasted that some consider him — like many of his subjects — a celebrity.
“I haven’t sold that many books! I’m living in a very normal apartment! I don’t own a helicopter!” exclaims the writer during an interview at said apartment. The spare Manhattan space, highlighted by a big screen TV tuned to ESPN Classic and a large, framed poster of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” did indeed meet the standards of “normal.”
But by delving into “The Real World” and Britney Spears with as much intellectual gusto as a professor examining Wittgenstein, Klosterman has emerged as one of the country’s most distinctive pop critics.
Though he has his detractors (like Gawker.com, which has made him a target), Klosterman has inspired over-the-top praise that often includes “voice of a generation” superlatives.
“I’m always interested in the question of why does something become big,” he says.
So, why has Klosterman (in a relative sense) become big? What generational vein has he tapped?
“That’s the thing!” he responds. “Everyone knows that — no one knows what it is!”
Now releasing his fourth book, a collection entitled “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas,” the author of “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” is still more accustomed to being on the other side of a reporter’s tape recorder.
Klosterman, 34, grew up in Wyndmere, N.D. and cut his teeth for eight years as a journalist in Fargo and in Akron, Ohio before moving to New York in 2002 after the success of his first book, “Fargo Rock City.”
Subtitled “A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota,” the memoir chronicled what it was like growing up in the Midwest with a love for Guns N’ Roses. It found rave reviews and was aided by a thumbs-up from David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who said the book was “about how music feels, how media-saturated culture feels, and how it’s all in the details.”
In New York, Klosterman soon became ubiquitous in magazines. Until earlier this year he was a senior writer at Spin, he maintains a column at Esquire, and regularly contributes to the New York Times Magazine and ESPN.com.
Finding meaning in ‘Saved by the Bell’It was his second book, though, that multiplied his audience considerably. “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” a collection of essays and a self-described “low-culture manifesto” has spent seven weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list — including this week, two years after the book’s release.
“Cocoa Puffs” even made a cameo as a book Seth Cohen is seen reading on “The O.C.” — Klosterman’s thoughts on pop culture had officially become part of pop culture.
A sampling of those musings includes how John Cusack has ruined the romantic perspective of a generation of women, why Billy Joel rocks, and the reality of “Saved By the Bell.”
The book’s introduction offered Klosterman’s overarching, sociological approach: “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever ‘in and of itself.”’
“If you’re reading ‘Ulysses’ or watching ‘Saved by the Bell,’ you’re trying to find meaning,” says Klosterman. “I don’t know why you can’t do that in the present tense.
“What I like about ‘Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs’ is that it will be a much more interesting book 25 years from now, because it will be like this weird period piece from what people were actually thinking about in the present tense at the turn of the 21st century.”
Klosterman took to the road for his next book, “Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story,” where he chronicled his trip to the places many rock stars died. His goal: to figure out “why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing.”
“Chuck Klosterman IV” is a collection of mostly magazine profiles and opinionated columns. His populist approach is reflected in a column he wrote in 2002 after the deaths of Dee Dee Ramone (of the Ramones) and Robbin Crosby (of Ratt).
Klosterman sees an unfair balance to how Ramone’s death received far more attention than Crosby’s (“the fist major hair-metal artist from the Reagan years to die from AIDS”). He concludes that the “concept of good taste” is nothing more than “a subjective device used to create gaps in the intellectual class structure.”
“My view has always been there are lots of people in America that want to think critically about the art that engages their life,” he says. “Now, there are places that definitely do that, like the New Yorker, NPR, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s.
“The problem is that a lot of the subjects those publications cover, a lot of society has no relationship to. They’ve never listened to Yo La Tengo records. They haven’t seen the films that are supposed to be important.”
The zen of Britney SpearsIn profiling pop stars and rock bands, Klosterman’s general approach is to seek out what someone “represents.” Britney Spears, for example, “is not so much a person as she is an idea, and the idea is this: You can want everything, so long as you get nothing.”
On Steve Nash, the Phoenix Suns point guard, he writes: “Nash plays basketball in a deftly metaphoric manner.”
Of course, Spears and Nash both appear to have little idea what Klosterman is talking about when he asks them about their metaphoric meaning. And ironically enough, Klosterman can’t figure it out, either, when it comes to himself.
“I do feel like in a very big way, I’ve totally lost control of my life,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what I write, because people seem to be addressing either this idea of me ... or they’re just writing about the perceived success of my career.”
“IV” also contains Klosterman’s first published fiction, a short story he wrote several years ago about a man who is driving when a woman falls out of the sky and lands on his car.
He’s now working on a novel that he describes as about “small town mythology,” and which is clearly a new challenge for him.
“I’m predisposed to see meaning in things that might seem meaningless,” Klosterman says, “but that doesn’t mean I can make meaning clear to people in a narrative sense.”